January 30, 2019

Life sciences extending opportunities to low-income students

Photo/Grant Welker
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito speaks Tuesday at Framingham State University, where officials announced Project Onramp. The program is meant to open opportunities at life science companies for low-income and first-generation college students.

Leaders in the Massachusetts life sciences industry know the tough truth for students looking to get a foot in the door at a major company: You often need to know someone first.

Having the right connections may be doable for some, but it's that much harder for low-income students or those who are first in their family to attend college.

Life sciences companies are working to fix that with a new program announced Tuesday at Framingham State University to put 50 students in summer internships at some of the region's biggest companies, including Biogen, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca and MilliporeSigma.

The program, called Project Onramp, is meant for students who don't have the benefit of industry connections but can offer companies a chance for greater diversity, said David Lucchino, the chairman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the industry group known as MassBio.

"I don't know anyone at Vertex," Lucchino said, putting himself in the position of those students. "I don't know anyone at Biogen. How do I get my foot in the door?"

Among them will be Framingham State sophomore Cristina Foster, who wants to be a pediatrician after graduation. Foster, who was born in the Dominican Republic and lives in Dorchester, said she's overcome a lack of opportunities through hard work and perseverance.

Project Onramp is meant to help life sciences companies fill what is expected to be 12,000 new positions by 2023, according to the industry groups. The program will pay students between $17 and $25 an hour, with state funding helping smaller life sciences companies match those pay scales. Students from Framingham State and other public colleges will participate.

"The workforce is right in front of us, but students didn't have a way to know how to access these jobs," said Bob Coughlin, the MassBio president and CEO.

Project Onramp is the latest tie between Framingham State and the growing life sciences industry. The university is not traditionally known for the sciences but has had sharp enrollment growth in STEM subjects, President Javier Cevallos said.

Framingham State started a new master's in business administration degree program last fall, including a concentration on biotechnology to take advantage of the proximity to a large and growing number of jobs in the industry.

Last summer, the university was awarded a $1-million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland to cover a five-year development initiative for STEM faculty to help first-generation and under-represented students in science, technology, engineering and math.

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